Skip to comments.A drought of farm labor
Posted on 12/02/2005 4:53:42 AM PST by Crackingham
Imperial Valley lettuce farmer Jack Vessey says it's the worst in his lifetime. Farther north in California's Central Valley, orange grower Manuel Cunha calls it the most constrained since before World War II. Coastal tomato grower Luwanna Holmstrom constantly worries about a repeat of two years ago, when she had to plow under $2.5 million in tomatoes left unpicked.
California and Arizona farmers - producers of half the nation's citrus and 90 percent of its vegetables and nuts - are struggling with an acute labor shortage. The situation, worsened by crackdowns on illegal immigration since 9/11, also extends to other states and is no longer just a matter of possible price increases on lettuce, oranges, or almonds, farmers say. Rather, it is a turning point in the nation's ability to produce its own food - and possibly the loss of major parts of its agriculture industry.
"We are trying to sound the alarm without being alarmist, but the situation has become extremely serious," says Tim Chelling of the Western Growers Association, whose members grow, pack, and ship half America's produce. "We are now talking of losing the production of key commodities to foreign competition. America's produce industry is facing a crisis."
Although the shortage was worsening before 9/11, it's now extreme, Mr. Chelling and the three California farmers say. Without an emergency guest-worker program, they will be dramatically short of the minimum number of workers needed to harvest the current crop. Without long-term immigration reform that acknowledges America's reliance on foreign workers, farmers will not be able to make ends meet, they say.
Mr. Cunha, for example, says Central Valley raisin growers need 50,500 pickers and have only 15,000. In the last harvest, $150 million to $300 million in grapes were ruined because they could not be picked and laid out to dry before the period of necessary seasonal sunlight passed. This year predictions are worse.
Mr. Vessey began harvesting romaine, iceberg, and red-leaf lettuce Tuesday. He was 200 workers short. "I lost $250,000 because of this problem last year," he says. "This year I am concerned I could go under completely. If I miss making my contracts with some of the big stores, they could look to China, Canada, Mexico, and elsewhere, and even if I recover my labor later, it may be too late."
Even before 9/11, other industries from construction to hotels, restaurants, and domestic services were luring workers away from the difficult and temporary work of harvesting. Increased border enforcement, which began a decade ago but has been ratcheted up since 2001, has further reduced the labor pool. In fact, by tripling the border patrol in recent years, the back-and-forth traffic of illegals has become so problematic that instead of returning to Mexico, many have moved farther into America's interior in search of full-time work - leaving seasonal agriculture work behind. This year, construction booms in the West and Midwest, hurricane reconstruction in Florida, and post- Katrina cleanup in the Gulf have siphoned off even more undocumented workers.
Higher wages would help, critics point out. "The problem is that the agricultural industry has come to expect that they will have exactly the workers they need when they need them and at the price they want them, but that is not the way the economy works," says Ira Mehlman of the Federation of American Immigration Reform.
Furthermore, America is not getting the cheap labor it expects from undocumented workers because of the unseen cost of $10.5 billion spent a year for health, education, and incarceration of such workers, he says. "If you started factoring in all the costs associated with these low-wage workers, you would realize the cost of a head of lettuce is prohibitive in this situation."
"You always hear the argument that if we just paid decent wages and made these jobs open to legal Americans that the jobs would be filled," says Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League. "We have found that to be completely not so."
Vessey says he offered $8.50 an hour but that some workers choosing to harvest "per carton" can average up to $12 per hour. But when he went recently to Imperial County's welfare and economic development department seeking 300 workers for the next day, only one showed up to his fields and left after half a day.
Japanese are leading the charge in robotics while the USA is stuck with loudmouth OBL types who champion feudal work conditions and call it "cheap labor."
This is other side of the story. If people don't want to work then what are these guys supposed to do?
The WGA is not exactly a poor mom and pop type operation, from what I understand their members are big money.
Its the Law of Supply and Demand. Pay more until legal workers will take the job.
The laws of supply and demand work just as well for those seeking employees.
There is so much in this article to discuss. One of the most interesting assertions is that, because of the "crackdown" at the border, migrant workers have chosen to stay in America rather than take the chance of getting caught.
Of course, if you don't believe what is being said, most of this is article is a joke.
I kind of believe that they couldn't get welfare recipients to come out for $8.50 an hour and work all day.
That's what I wondered!
A buddy said that they could mechanize harvests with no problem but because of some agreement with Caesar Chavez years ago, they don't.
It's time to end that...
Why don't they just close down schools and let the local students work the harvest? That's what they do in potato country.
Hey, there's a drought of BMWs in my garage, can I break the law to remedy that?
when cheap labor is not available, they will find ways to innovate and mechanize.
What's wrong with convict labor? CA has thousands of inmates that could pick lettuce for 8 cents an hour.
That's another thing that irritates me. Used to be that prison labor was a major means of support for the prisons themselves. These days the prisons are taxpayer supported.
Wow, I can imagine how far 8.50 an hour would go in California. They would rather loose a ton of food and not fill orders than pay more per hour for a worker?
Pay a better wage or find another business.
... and nobody in the county should receive Unemployment or Welfare compensation for any days where any employer in the county has open positions for unskilled labor.
It isnt the wage its the fact that the government will supply them a check whether they work or not so why work?
There are some people who dont want to work . Where are all those unemployed from New Orleans . You dont think any of them would do stoop work do you?
There is no reason for unemployment in this country.Plenty of jobs just too many lazy bastids that wont do them./
It takes jobs away from people who haven't committed a crime.
"They would rather loose a ton of food and not fill orders than pay more per hour for a worker?"
At a fairly low point, increasing the cost of the labor removes all profit from the equation, and it becomes cheaper to simply let the produce rot in the fields.
Unless, of course, you're willing to pay a lot more for lettuce. Maybe you are. I might be. But is everyone ELSE willing to get hosed for this?
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